Côte d'Ivoire

Population: 17,300,000
Area: 322,460 km²
Capital: Abidjan
Language: French

Côte d'Ivoire qualified under the most dramatic circumstances in CAF group 3 a point ahead of Cameroon who missed a last minute penalty when a goal would have taken them to Germany instead.
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Jan 17 Jordan v Côte d'Ivoire 0-2
Jan 21 Morocco v Côte d'Ivoire 0-1
Jan 24 Libya v Côte d'Ivoire 1-2
Jan 28 Egypt v Côte d'Ivoire 3-1
Feb 04 Cameroon v Côte d'Ivoire 1-1
Feb 07 Nigeria v Côte d'Ivoire 0-1
Feb 10 Egypt v Côte d'Ivoire 0-0
Mar 01 Spain v Côte d'Ivoire 3-2
May 27 Switz'land v Côte d'Ivoire 1-1
May 30 Chile v Côte d'Ivoire 1-1
Jun 04 Côte d'Ivoire v Slovenia 3-0

Participated: None
Best placing: None
Topscorer: None

Jun 10 - CIV v ARG  in Hamburg
Jun 16 - CIV v NED  in Stuttgart
Jun 21 - CIV v SCG  in Munich

- Côte d'Ivoire in Group C -
Jan Alsos: 4th place
Pierre Boisrond: 4th place
Ruud Doevendans: 2nd place
Mike Gibbons: 3rd place
Peter Goldstein: 3rd place
Paul Marcuccitti: 4th place
Felipe Santos: 4th place
PREDICTION: First round exit


by Peter Goldstein

    Côte D’Ivoire are like one of those pictures that show two different things depending on how you look. Is it a vase or a pair of faces? Are the blocks concave or convex? Are the Elephants one of the best teams to come out of Africa in a long time, or are they a side with serious, incapacitating weaknesses?

    Looked at one way, there’s no doubt about the talent. Didier Drogba, Aruna Dindane, Bonaventure Kalou, Didier Zokora, Kolo Touré--these are names to conjure with. It’s hard to recall a team from Africa with so many proven players at top level. But looked at the other way, there’s a problem with the defense. And the midfield. And the attack. And the coach. They’re a powerhouse, but the most vulnerable one in recent memory.

    The real problem, of course, is expectations. The Elephants, and their fans, see themselves as Africa’s standard-bearers, and will accept nothing less than success. But to put it mildly, there’s no room for error. The draw has dropped them into a criminally tough group (compare Togo’s, Angola’s and Tunisia’s), where even their best may not be good enough. Up against Argentina, Holland, and Serbia & Montenegro, any flaw will be magnified a hundredfold. Even after the tournament is over, we may have no idea how good they are or can be.

    We can start with some encouraging news, though. Keeper Jean-Jacques Tizié (Esperance) had a very good Nations Cup in Egypt, and is rounding into form just in time. He has excellent quick reactions, and can be commanding coming off his line. If he’s sharp in Germany, he’ll be a major asset.

    Now to the back four, considered by most to be the biggest weakness. At the moment there’s only one established international-class defender--fortunately, it’s Kolo Touré (Arsenal). The prototype cultured centerback, he marks, reads, tackles, distributes, and organizes the line. He may not have the physical presence or air game of a John Terry, but his quickness and anticipation more than make up the difference.

    Speaking of Arsenal men, there’s great potential at right back, where Emmanuel Eboué looks like the next big thing. His outstanding pace and buccaneering spirit have given him the job over the more pedestrian Marc Zoro (Messina). At the moment he still needs work on reading and positioning, but he’s been growing with every game in the Champions League, and with luck, the World Cup could be his coming-out party.

    The other two spots are less encouraging. As Touré’s partner, neither Abdoulaye Meïte (Marseille) nor Blaise Kouassi (Troyes) has convinced. Meïte is the stronger, Kouassi the quicker, but neither reads the game terribly well, and both get caught out too often. The left back is Arthur Boka (Strasbourg), very small but quick, good on free kicks, who now and then gets forward to provide a useful cross. His defensive skills are only average, though, and he sometimes gets overpowered.

    In midfield there’s lots of quality, but somehow it doesn’t quite fit together. Defensive midfield is a perfect example. Didier Zokora (St. Etienne), known as “Maestro,” is an excellent anchor, who can be rugged or technical depending on what you need, and holds the ball well to set the tempo. Yaya Touré (Olympiakos), Kolo’s brother, is the new star, big, agile, aggressive, with very good ball skills. You need him in the lineup, but he’s best in the same position as Zokora. He’s allowed to press forward more, but he’s not really an attacking player; in Egypt he consistently came up short when asked to provide the incisive pass.

    Which leads us to the next dilemma. Right now Henri Michel is playing both Zokora and Yaya Touré in the middle, which means he needs wide midfield attackers. But by far his best attacking midfielder is Bonaventure Kalou (PSG), who plays best in a central role behind the strikers. Kalou is maddeningly inconsistent, but when he’s on, he’s a wonder: quick, with remarkable skills and creativity, capable of scoring outstanding goals. If you leave him out, you risk neutering the attack.

    A further problem is that the natural wide midfield players are no more than adequate. On the left, Kanga Akale (Auxerre) provides plenty of pace, but his crosses are inconsistent; his rival for the spot is N’Dri Romaric (Le Mans), not as fast but with more reliable technique. On the right Michel wants a playmaker, but neither Emerse Faé (Nantes), who likes to run at his man, nor Gilles Yapi Yapo (Young Boys Bern), more of a twister and passer, has impressed enough to claim a regular spot. A late candidate is Kader Keita (Lille), a striker by trade, who is strong and an exciting dribbler, but maybe a bit indirect for the role. Perhaps the best solution is Yaya Touré on the right with Kalou at the point of a diamond.

    From the start the strikers have grabbed the headlines, and here the talent is undoubtedly first-rate. The bellwether is Didier Drogba (Chelsea), one of the best in the world. You know about his power, skill, and finishing ability; the least appreciated part of his game is his vision, which creates plenty of chances for his teammates. Then there’s Aruna Dindane (Lens), the ideal partner: a clever dribbler, with a quick turn and another fine creative streak. Aruna Koné (PSV Eindhoven) is a solid backup, strong with good balance, although his technique and finishing are a bit uncertain; Baky Koné (Nice) is the joker, a pocket rocket who gets his shots on net.

    So what’s the problem up front? Fitness, maybe. Drogba has been fighting a bad knee ligament for several months, and only recently has he looked anywhere near top form. He’s been playing through the pain--how much will he have left in June?

    Lastly, the coach. Henri Michel is what the French call a veteran de mille batailles, of a thousand battles. His first appearance in the World Cup was in 1986, with France; he also coached Cameroon in 1994 and Morocco in 1998. He’s seen it all, you’d say. But he could never have expected the way he’s been treated in Côte D’Ivoire. As the man who took them to their first World Cup, he should at least have his picture on the one-franc note. Instead, he’s been subject to continual abuse from the press, who are sure he doesn’t know what he’s doing. (They never really forgave him the losses to Cameroon in the qualifiers.) It doesn’t matter whether you’re in Africa or Antarctica: the press always knows best. But you wonder about Michel--here we are, several years into the qualifying cycle, and he’s yet to evolve a stable, convincing lineup. In Egypt he did a lot of platooning, a wise move in a tournament he hoped to win. But for the group stage games in Germany, only the optimum lineup will do, particularly in midfield, and he hasn’t found it yet.

    So those are the Elephants. With their excellences and flaws, they’re one of the most fascinating teams at the tournament. They’re not a great team, at least not yet. But you don’t have to be a great team to succeed at the World Cup; all you have to be is in form. In Group C, a strong showing will put you in the ballpark, a weak one will send you home quickly. So which is it--the vase or the pair of faces?




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